Before Covid-19, the concept of war and combat, indeed the concept of all wars was something that felt “elsewhere” – clashes and daily fatalities in foreign lands that most of us were acquainted with primarily through sand-toned news images in varying shades of desert beige, khaki green or military camouflage.
Today Covid-19 brings the idea of war into unmistakable, vivid color for all of us. You’re aware of “combat zones” every time you venture into near empty streets or queue outside potentially virus-plagued grocery stores with security guards enforcing the 6-foot separation rule. You recognize your potential to harm others, unknowingly, even fatally, when masked strangers scurry like furtive rats almost offensively out of your way to avoid your germ radius.
This “war” is impossible to ignore when, in effect, every man, woman and child has been conscripted to head into combat together – each of us asked to do our part in saving each other and ourselves.
The strife may be happening on a global scale but for the first time in the history of all world wars, we’re fighting against a common enemy as one. Considering that our “one” is over 7 billion strong, odds of an eventual ceasefire are decidedly in our favor.
As with all wars, there is inevitable havoc, hardship and consequent heartache. But if you step far enough away from the persistent shelling of negativity and devastation “fire-hosed” at us daily from news reports on Covid-19, the bigger picture has some surprisingly uplifting angles.
From high enough above, the positives of this war are visible, audible even. It’s an arresting, awe-inspiring sight: crowds stretch across the globe and push the limits our vision- spectacular and overwhelming in their numbers. But it is the deafening audio, the dramatic chorus that is most powerful: the roar of masses from every corner of the globe rooting for scientific teams in England, Europe and America who are working around the clock in a race for a cure; the thunderous applause for the legions of essential workers on the front lines; the mad, almost hysterical cheering for those who have recovered from the virus; the hails of gratitude for the unexpected heroes who have emerged from the sidelines to help.
These are the unlikely positives that have surfaced above the carnage of Covid-19: a sense of being united globally to conquer and prevail over the insidiousness of this disease; an openness to communicate, share and interact at a deeper level with the people who matter most; and an evolution in empathy and understanding of other people’s plight – so profound as to inspire cooperation and kindness among strangers in new and creative ways.
The New Consensus: A Better “Normal”
Whomever you talk to, regardless of where they reside on the globe, there is a common assertion that the world could not continue on its current path. We had hit a crescendo in our wanton treatment of the Earth, its creatures and each other.
One gets the sense that in her own way, Mother Nature had hit the reset button on the consistent abuse of our planet, its resources and its creatures. The skies in many parts of the world that were once painted almost exclusively in “pollution-grey” have cleared to stunning hues of blue. Marine life in the canals of Venice is flourishing where you can now see down to the sandy beds.
Not only nature was in dire need of a re-boot. We were treating each other with abandon. We’d come to accept the daily antics of our global leaders and “Cult of the Ego” as political norm. We watched media pundits skewer others publicly and we egged them on. Or worse, we thought nothing of doing it ourselves — eviscerating each other senselessly for daring to go beyond the boundaries of our own versions of acceptable.
For as much as we sought to encourage tolerance, intolerance still prevailed. We labeled each other in the most pejorative way across every facet of life – from politics to life style choices, to food consumption. Even whole generations (Boomers, Gen X-ers, Millennials) got into the act — one claiming its superiority over the other or casting nicknames and blanket, mocking adjectives based solely on birth date ranges.
We consumed more. We demanded more. We became disappointed, discontent, dissatisfied in spite of the excess. We experienced sheer gluttony of the senses while pillaging our own energy to get there.
But none of that matters in this new war. Covid-19 doesn’t care where you live, what generation you belong to, what you eat, whether you live in squalor or sit in the highest ranks of government. It’s the insidious equalizer yanking you out of any boxes you knowingly or unknowingly were placed in– stripping you of any labels. It’s brought us all down to the lowest common denominator descriptor of our race — human.
We were so obsessed with vilifying “other” and consumed with our need to look out for only ourselves, that we became jaded to any notions of unity or selflessness.
I’m not so naïve to believe that Covid-19 will stop or even deter globally- depraved behavior but I am noticing an interesting phenomenon with regards to transformation. A “gift” has been trending on social media and the Internet. Words like “renewal”, “change”, “reset”, “better” and “rise” decorate people’s posts all over the world like colorful ribbon — weaving encouragement, possibility and hope into our thinking about how we might approach the future in less selfish, more conscientious ways.
Instead of the focus on disparate, self-interested groups, there is already evidence of unity and the power of working together. Governments are sharing information on the efficacy of measures they’ve taken to abate the spread of the disease; scientists and doctors from all over the world are exchanging medical data on testing for anti-bodies; and regular civilians are connecting on social media to set examples of spontaneous benevolence.
If anything, this war has given us pause to consider that perhaps, with a reset in our behavior and as a unified front, there can be a new and improved “normal” for all of us — where we show a greater respect for living creatures, for our planet, for each other.
A Break-Through in Communications
Another upside to this otherwise surreal episode in history is its surprising and positive impact on how we communicate in our most relevant, personal relationships. Up until this crisis, society was slanting more towards messaging and texting in abbreviated missives to make a point. Instead of spelling out what we wanted to say, we became lazy about the very act of writing. We developed an increasing reliance on emojis, bitmojis, GIFs and memes. We even let other people’s quotes or videos speak for us — feeling like someone else could say it better, funnier, in a more clever way. We lost our ability to say it ourselves, in our own words. In effect, our voices lost their authenticity to the recycling of what already existed out there.
And yet, out of lockdowns and globally-imposed constraints on our ability to be in each other’s physical company, a new and beautiful thing is happening in our personal relationships. Not only are we communicating more with our loved ones, but there’s a new and voracious appetite to go beyond the default, two-dimensional protocol of writing back & forth.
In an ironic twist, the same technology that we blamed for distracting us at the dinner table and creating an emotional wedge between each other, is now enabling us to go “old school” and use phones to talk to each other again.
Social video apps are seeing an explosive upswing in downloads. People are more open to seeing each other, hearing each other, reading each other’s facial expressions. Friends are keen to “show off” their battle wounds to their inner circles like un-manicured nails or expanding waistlines. They want to compare notes on rare finds at the grocery store or share funny stories about how they’re not coping in quarantine. There is a new appreciation for interaction that requires real-time, verbal exchange using our own words and sharing our own experiences.
This development in communication is huge because it extends across all generations. My kids are on House Party or Zoom regularly and not just for online classes. Until recently, I was worried that without the desire and willingness to talk face-to-face with others, without the skill of learning how to listen for emotion and tone, their generation would be doomed to long-term relationships with robots or inflatable dolls.
Nothing – not even war– can take away what every human needs to feel alive –connection. Travel and socialising under Covid-19 may be forbidden but magnificently, the human condition will rebel in the face of restriction. The virus that separates us physically is actually encouraging, creating, inspiring genuine connection.
An Evolution in Empathy
Not only are none of us coming out of this crisis unscathed, but the “haves” are getting a taste of what it’s like not to have access to everyday essentials. I’d like to believe that with this experience, hopefully, comes understanding. And with understanding comes empathy or at the very least, a deepened awareness of what others contend with on a regular basis.
The food and supply shortages remind me of when I was in my last semester of university in the early 90’s living with host families in four cities across Russia (I was a student in Russian & Slavic Studies) . There was a common question posed by every one of my hosts when someone had returned from the daily food shopping: “Nu, shto dastal?” (translation: “Well, what were you able to get?”)
Since back then someone else did the shopping, I didn’t appreciate the energy and effort that food procurement involved. It wasn’t until people first started panic-buying and stores were stripped of their inventory, that that expression hit home – in the most literal sense.
During that same period as a student, I remember chatting to a small group of friends on a street corner in Siberia. We looked up to see that about twenty people had formed a line behind us. We hadn’t realised that standing in groups signaled to others that there was something to queue for—even if you had no idea for what. Someone asked if we knew what was being handed out that day. Back then, I found the impromptu queues amusing. Today I feel like a jerk for having seen it that way. For them it was an accepted norm. Today, queuing is a way of life – albeit and hopefully temporary – for the rest of us now too.
On top of long waits, the Covid-19 War has also given us a lesson in rationing. Friends in Texas were allowed to buy a singular roll of toilet paper. My family in California tells me that flour, yeast, eggs, and butter are still hard come by. Their experiences make me that much more empathic to a story my Russian mother-in-law told me of life in the former Soviet Union. Her mother woke her and her baby brother up one morning at 3am to get into the queues for flour—where they were allotted one kilo per person per family.
Because of this pandemic, it’s a fair assertion to say that none of us take ease of food shopping nor availability of essential items for granted anymore. When you walk into a store and see that there’s nothing left, you now understand that immediate jarring feeling that borders on panic of having to go without. But perhaps like me, you live in a country of abundance where you know queues and rations won’t last forever. The difference is, and unless you’re completely impervious to the suffering of others, you now have an idea what it must feel like for others who don’t have that fall back. And because of these new lessons, you can’t help but develop an empathy and sensitivity for what others who have little must feel all the time.
The media will continue to shine a spotlight on lack, misfortune and struggle. Evidence of sensitivity and compassion, though, are also breaking through. Some top executives are taking paycuts to prevent company-wide layoffs. In the UK, credit card and loans payments are to be frozen for 3 months during the coronavirus crisis. For the first time in memory, financial suffering is inspiring institutionalized sensitivity.
Other non-obvious heroes in addition to those on the front lines have stepped forward to set glorious examples of creative kindness. They are the people who are going out of their way to be helpful, compassionate and kind: landlords who are pardoning rent and calling on other landlords to do the same; university students from top schools who are making and donating ventilators to hospitals; a 16 yr-old who is using his flight lessons to deliver medical supplies to rural hospitals, to name a few. Their empathy and action inspire awe.
Covid-19 and the Concluding Aggregate
To close this piece on a personal note, when I tell my husband about something that’s worries or upsets me deeply, he will say, “Take a step back and look at the aggregate – not just the negative parts you’re focusing on. There are a lot of positives you’re not taking into account.”
As I write this piece, the lockdowns are slowly being lifted in waves across the planet. As we continue to read and hear about the daily devastation and economic fallout of the Covid-19 War, we might also take the time to heed my husband’s words and consider the surprising gains that have also come out of this crisis.
Ironically, the war that mandates our separation also connects us like never before. It unites us in our hope to release this disease’s unrelenting grip on us and work together towards a healthier planet, global recovery and a definitive cure. It gives us a desire to communicate more dynamically in our personal relationships. It gifts us with a deeper empathy of other people’s similar experiences in other stretches of the world. It inspires us to action through the examples set by unlikely heroes to be creatively kind.
If we “look at the aggregate” of Covid-19, we might see how much we’ve taken for granted, how little we actually need to get by, and how, with the right perspective, we can shift our anxiety into appreciation for the valuable lessons we’re still learning.